A World of Magic

By Jeffrey Page

Tom Verner opened a paper bag and placed it over the little girl’s head for a moment. “Anything in there?” he asked.

“No.” She was about 5.

He handed her his magic wand and asked her to wave it over the bag while saying some magic words. Not abracadabra, but woo-woo-woo. He looked inside, slapped his hand to his cheek in astonishment, and withdrew a bright green silk. Some children in the audience gasped – the sound magicians love.

After the green, he found a red silk and the gasps grew louder. Then he stuck his hand in and pulled out a transparent plastic box with a fancy ribbon handle and some paper flowers inside. The kids understood that logic had just been defied. There was no way that box – and a second box that Verner would find in another minute – could possibly fit in the bag.

This was last week in Warwick as Verner was making his way from home in Vermont to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, where he would do some of the same tricks and bring a little joy, a little astonishment, and maybe a little hope, to children living in orphanages, hospitals and refugee camps.

Verner has been taking his act overseas for the last nine years. He has performed in 25 countries, as well as in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama after Hurricane Katrina, undertaking the three basic tasks of magicians. He makes things appear (the silks), makes things disappear (a coin you could have sworn he had in his hand), and transforms things (a round red ball he stuffs into a child’s hand changes to a black cube).

Verner said the response he gets from sick, injured and lonely children in the grim pockets of poverty and war overseas is identical to the reaction of healthy, happy, well-fed kids in America. To prove his point, Verner showed a short movie of some of his performances. In shows in Warwick and Macedonia, Verner tore up a sheet of thin white tissue paper and placed the pieces in his mouth. He chewed the paper, and a moment later, pulled out the tissue – intact, of course – followed by a silk about 45 feet long (that is not a typo) in green, red, blue, yellow.

In Warwick, Macedonia and El Salvador, the kids displayed that universal look of wonder – the dropped jaw, the raised eyebrows and the beckoning arms. Not just wonder, but of amazement, excitement and joy as well. Not to mention the expression that says: How does that happen? It doesn’t matter if they speak English, Macedonian or Spanish.

Verner first learned of the unifying language of magic in 2001. While on retreat in Poland bearing witness to the horrors of Auschwitz, Verner learned of refugee camps in the Balkans. He made his way to Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia where he put on shows for the homeless and displaced.

“I spoke no Serbo-Croatian. They spoke no English,” Verner said, anticipating the question. “But magic is its own language. The kids watch; they get it.”

That 2001 visit led to Verner’s founding Magicians Without Borders. He has been dividing his time between magic overseas and his duties as a professor of psychology at Burlington College in Vermont ever since. His Burlington students engage in a great deal of independent study. In addition to entertaining, Verner uses much of his time on the road in El Salvador teaching magic to the next generations of conjurers, some of whom are already performing on their own.

The United Nations estimates that Verner and his wife, Janet Fredericks, who plays a mime named La Fleur in Verner’s magic shows, have entertained more than 400,000 people since 2001. Just last year, for example, they performed for 80,000 Bhutanese refugees living in camps on the Indian-Nepalese border, for the children of prostitutes in Bombay and Katmandu, and at an orphanage for mentally ill children.

The Warwick stop, at Stone Bridge Station on Wisner Road, was arranged by Sugar Loaf Music, and was a two-fold affair. Verner spent about an hour doing magic for young children and their moms and dads – earlier in the day he wowed the kids at the Middle School – and then addressed the parents. He described the squalor and hopelessness of the slums and refugee camps he has visited.

He said he always believed that the camps were places where displaced people spend a year or so until they can straighten out their lives. But he was shocked to find some families still in camps after 20 years. “People out of hope,” he said.

With his Warwick show for the kids over, Verner made a low-key pitch for donations over and above the $10 admission to keep his show on the road. Listening to his talk about overseas conditions he has encountered, the parents were inspired and a small valise near the exit quickly swelled with bills.

Verner’s and Fredericks’ act, performed on four continents, is more than sleight-of-hand. “Magic plants the seeds of hope, hope that the impossible might yet be possible,” he said. “Maybe I can help that process along.”

Care to be the magician’s assistant without getting sawed in half? Magicians Without Borders is based at 100 Geary Rd., Lincoln, Vt. 05443.

Jeffrey can be reached at jeffrey@zestoforange.com


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